In 2008 I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Jeremy Begbie.
Back then he was transitioning from a position with St. Andrew’s University in Scotland to a newly created post with Duke University; from founder and director of the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St. Andrew’s to founder and director of Duke Divinity School’s Initiatives for Theology and the Arts. And that’s only what he does for half the academic year. The other half he teaches systematic theology in Cambridge, England.
Begbie is a prolific writer and sought-after speaker, a trained classical pianist and priest in the Church of England. He has devoted his professional life to exploring the intersections of theology and art, especially music. I’d been drawn to the Episcopal church in large part because of its rich liturgical and musical traditions. And now I was reading a book of his, in fact, when I heard he was coming to a conference being held just up the road in Austin, Texas.
“Can I go?” I asked my boss as I showed him a flyer.
“I wish I could join you,” he smiled.
So, the conference did not disappoint.
Begbie is an academic. So you might call to mind the stereotypical academic lecturer: dry, inaccessible, interesting only to the few other academics in the world who share his esoteric questions.
Not so with Begbie! I witnessed him teach a room of six hundred people–mostly non-musicians–how to listen for God in a piano sonata by Sergei Prokofiev. Prokofiev’s music isn’t easy even for musicians! After discussing, Begbie performed the piece; at its conclusion, all six hundred listeners instantly rose to their feet as one, responding with loud ovation. Non-musicians had heard this difficult piece of music and they got it! They encountered the divine in and through Prokofiev.
Since that time I’ve read more of Begbie’s books; I’ve looked wistfully at Duke Divinity’s website, wondering if I might be able to enroll as a doctoral student with its Initiatives for Theology and the Arts; and I’ve tried to book Begbie for speaking/performing engagements. The world, especially the Episcopal world, needs to hear what this guy’s about!
As I said, I was drawn to the Episcopal Church in large part by its musical and liturgical traditions. So much of modern-day Christianity is lite, as in lite beer (which is even lite in the way it misspells light). Maybe another way to say it is user-friendly, to put a positive spin on it. The bar is low. Pew sitters don’t have to do much except show up on Sunday expecting (and usually getting) a sort of cheap and uplifting entertainment.
But as a person with a bent towards the spiritual, a few years of Christianity lite was already too much for me. I didn’t want to come to church on Sundays in search of uplifting entertainment in exchange for a few bucks in the plate as it passed by. I wanted to encounter God. If it took a little or a lot of effort on my part to do this, so be it.
Besides, if I was in fact entering God’s house every Sunday, as we Christians in fact believe; and if I was in fact dining with Jesus Christ at his very Table–also something Christians believe–then why shouldn’t it require a little effort on my part? I wouldn’t show up to a dinner with the president of the US in flip-flops, shorts, and a tank top; why then show up to church like this?
Take this line of reasoning beyond me, as an individual, to the us, the corporate body we call church, including the many centuries of worshipers who have lived and died before our time. These usses have taken the faith seriously. The music and liturgy reflect this. There is something profound in praying the same Eucharistic prayer prayed by the English saints of the sixteenth century. Similarly, music. Think about all the complexities of a pipe organ and a many-voiced choir versus the simplicities of some soloist performing with a six-stringed guitar and a microphone. Not to slight the latter over the former, especially in its rightful context. But which seems more appropriate for a royal banquet?
Sadly, though, American Christianity is losing interest in the complex musical tradition in favor of user-friendliness. And thus we have Christianity lite.
And it’s not just the non-denoms and so-called evangelicals. It’s Episcopalians–who ought to know better; who ought to treasure their tradition the most!
Instead we look over the fence. At least that’s been my experience thus far. And I’ve only been an associate, not yet a rector; so thus far I’ve been powerless to effect change here–except for a recent Begbie event, which I’ll get back to soon; but here I had to circumvent my position as curate and deal with it at the diocesan level, a kind of clever subversion. But I digress.
Point is, we Episcopalians look over the fence at those other guys, those “successful” ones who somehow manage to bring in the numbers (and the pledges). And we think, how can we be more like them?
Ah, yes, happy-clappy music.
And, sure, user-friendliness.
And so the traditions we look to (if one can even call them traditions), congregational growth models from the 1990s mega-churches, are anemic and insipid, like so much schmaltz; and they end up trumping centuries of balanced nutrition.
Well, I mentioned above that I’ve tried to book Begbie before for speaking/performing engagements. He is making a living as a cutting-edge scholar exploring how music and theology overlap and intersect. “But it’s no more than what people were doing for centuries,” he tells me; “just that no one’s doing it anymore.” So, recently, I’m happy to say, it happened: I booked him. Last weekend, he came to San Antonio for three lectures/performances; sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas’s Liturgy and Music Commission; and hosted by my church. And I had a lot to do with it. Here’s how:
In the middle of May, 2013, I was in San Antonio looking for a house to rent. I’d just graduated from seminary. A diocesan retreat would be happening in a few days. Knowing I was to begin working at St. Luke’s in June, in the mean time I thought I’d try to find a place to live.
The bishop caught wind of my visit. Knowing my background in music, he asked, “Why not join my Liturgy and Music Commission? And why not just come to the meeting, which just so happens to be this afternoon?”
So, motorcycle helmet in hand, and helmet hair on head, I crashed the LMC meeting.
Planning an event was on the agenda, one that was somehow related to liturgy and music but also would be accessible, not just for choirs and their directors. “Why not Jeremy Begbie?” I suggested. “Who?” the other LMC members replied.
By the next meeting–now I was wearing clericals and living in a house in San Antonio–we had learned that Jeremy Begbie had a free weekend early in February, 2015, and could we get a proposed event on the calendar?
So it was decided.
And since I had brought it up, and since I was now working at St. Luke’s, a sensible venue, wouldn’t St. Luke’s like to play host?
And so that was decided too.
Which really meant, as I learned about three months ago, that I would end up doing most of the work, like when one kid ends of doing ninety percent of a high school group project.
So, remember that part where not too many people care about our rich liturgical and musical traditions anymore? That idea became reality about two months ago. For three months ago we opened registration for the event. And by two months ago only a few people had signed up, a few who all happened to be affiliated with the LMC.
Clergy were roused. Emails were sent. Phone calls were made.
Then, one month ago the number of registrants came in at a whopping nine.
Now, Begbie’s requested fee is $2000 (all of which, by the way, he puts into the Initiatives at Duke) plus travel expenses. We were charging $35 a piece at the door; $25 for early, online registration. We had only $1000 in the LMC account. Do the math. A month ago we were in trouble.
But I believe in the guy’s message.
And I also believe that the church is losing sight of its traditions.
So , like that parable where the wedding guests ignore their invitations, I took what good news I had to the highways and byways. I began to contact everyone I could think of within a 200-mile radius who might have the slightest interest in Begbie.
Fortunately I vaguely remembered the name of the group who sponsored the Austin conference from 2008. It had the words Hill Country in its name; and the conference was something about transforming culture. And with some weird combination of luck, providence, and Google working in my favor, I found it: Hill Country Institute.
Well, between HCI and the forty or so other contacts I made on a certain Friday night between 7pm and midnight–as if I had nothing better to do!–we saw 85 actual people show up to this event, about twenty who were not Episcopalians. In fact, we almost covered costs, meaning most of that $1000 is still in the LMC bank account.
And my smile’s been huge for the last five days.
HCI gets credit here because, yes, it knows and loves Jeremy Begbie; and it spread the word to more than 5000 of its constituents; and it interviewed Dr. Begbie and aired this interview a week ahead of the event on a radio program that covers much of south Texas via its airwaves. HCI, at the last minute, became a solid co-sponsor; no doubt many of those 85 are a direct result of HCI’s efforts. Thank you!
Still, only 85? What’s wrong with our culture?
The event itself was glorious. Dr. Begbie was as good as I’d remembered, even better. As for a review of the event, watch for another post soon!